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April 20, 1986

The ess in actress is not a diminutive and does not stand for less . The custom of designating the gender of persons performing an activity derives from languages in which every noun, whether referring to people, creatures, or objects, is "inflected," that is (assigned a gender), either male, female, or neuter.

In our language the practice of inflecting nouns has all but died, with a few notable exceptions. It is--or was until recently, at least--common practice to refer to ships and nations as female.

More notably, another exception is in the case of some words that refer to a person or persons, who, like it or not, do have sexes--or rather, genders, as we are told we should say nowadays. And thus, such words as actress and aviatrix.

The "hidden agenda of making women feel like fools for thinking they could compete with men" is not with those who continue to refer to female actors as actresses, but with the advocates of "non-sexist" language.

It is sad that these people--all well meaning, I'm sure--do not themselves recognize the assumption implicit in their assertion: To believe that calling a woman an actress demeans her because it refers to her gender is to assume that her gender itself is demeaning.

But what is demeaning about being a female? If being a woman is an honorable state, as I hope we all believe, what is demeaning, then, about being referred to as a woman, or a lady (which word carries connotations of class distinction, not sex), or, even, female ?

Are we going to see the elimination of other "sexist" terms because they demean a woman by referring to her sex? Will we see the day when the first word out of a baby's mouth must be parent because to call a woman mama would demean her?

A few years ago as blacks struggled for their civil rights, the slogan "Black is beautiful" asserted the dignity and pride they felt in being Americans of African descent. I would hope those people who are today so concerned that referring to a woman's sex demeans her might one day be able to say--without reservation--female is beautiful.


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